You take a turn down one of the bustling avenues at the Renaissance Festival, and a calamity appears before you. Three girls in ragamuffin street dress from another time assume a defensive football position against the oncoming crowd. “Hunchbacks!” one roars, “One! Two! Three!” Simultaneously, they drop their shoulderblades on one side and grunt, before assailing the onlookers, in 3-D: “NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT MADE SUMMER BY THIS GLORIOUS SON OF YORK!”
Mere moments later, when the fit has passed, the group debates the merits of a man in the crowd. “Think not I love him, though I ask for him,” one says just a bit too nonchalantly to her unconvinced companion, whose arms are folded and eyebrows duly cocked. “'Tis but a peevish boy, yet he talks well. But what care I for words?”
Seconds elapse, and then two hit the ground, awkwardly trying to make their caps into a blanket. The third, still standing, grimaces: “What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell,” waving the air with distaste.
The trio gets laughs from each of these brief scenes, all right. And in the process, they’ve painlessly added a bit more Shakespeare to the lives of passers-by.
Rebecca Blum, Kacey Reynolds and Carmen-Maria Mandley are members of the Nickel Shakespeare Girls, a Raleigh-based group of buskers—a British term used to describe street performers of the very old school. The Girls are celebrating their tenth year of touring their unique blend of acrobatics, humor and theatrics with street shows and more serious featured performances throughout this closing weekend of the North Carolina Renaissance Festival in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte.
On the road some 25 weeks out of the year, the group’s 2010 season already has performances slated at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and “A Somer’s Eve” festival in Bermuda.
Co-founder Carmen-Maria Mandley recalls their start at the NC Renaissance Faire, a different organization that was operating at the time in Raleigh: “We began making a deal with the people in the lane: If they gave us a nickel, we would give them some Shakespeare—or a rock.”
“To start with, about half of them went with the rocks,” Mandley now recalls, laughing.
But the gag ultimately proved so popular that by their second year, they—and everybody else—were calling them the Nickel Shakespeare Girls. “It kind of became our destiny, to bring Shakespeare to people who wouldn’t see or hear it otherwise, as well as to people who love it.”
The group performed in Duke Gardens this spring, and does workshops and residencies for educational programs in the area including Raleigh Charter High and East Chapel Hill High School.
But it’s the challenge of old-fashioned street theater that appeals to the actors. “You have to fight for your audience,” Mandley notes. “They aren’t captive. They’re not sitting comfortably—or uncomfortably—in their seats. You have about 10 seconds to get them. Or they’ll walk on by.”
“What excites me is when people who aren’t already privy to Shakespeare will stop and listen to Henry V, because the way we’re doing it engages them,” Mandley says. “It’s the kids who come back year after year to see us. It’s the energy it takes. It’s a very sacred thing, we care very deeply about.”
For further information on the Nickel Shakespeare Girls, go to http://www.nickelshakespearegirls.com.
The North Carolina Renaissance Festival runs through Sunday, Nov. 22. For further info on the festival, go to http://www.royalfaires.com/carolina.